Out & About: Biodiversity often buzzes under our radars

Bees are just one example of biodiversity.

The sheer magnitude of biodiversity was the focus of last week’s engaging Nature Matters lecture at the Fort George Lovell Showroom.

“The first step to learning is realizing how much you don’t know,” said speaker Jerry Freilich, who works as the research coordinator at Olympic National Park in Port Angeles, Washington.

Freilich’s intro to science began in his hometown of Philadelphia when, at 7 years old, he visited the Academy of Natural Sciences, the oldest natural history museum in the Americas. As a boy working as a curatorial assistant for the malacology department, he unpacked and sorted shells from around the world, and their numbers introduced him to the wonder of biodiversity. “It was love at first sight,” he recalled.

Now, with a doctorate in entomology under his belt, Freilich deals in the world of insects.

Bugs are the most diverse group of animals on the planet. Freilich said that within the scientific community, experts still debate just how many there are: anywhere from 3 million to 30 million different species. (That’s a lot of uncertainty.)

Freilich helped audience members recall the basic hierarchy of taxonomic groups: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.

Most people can name and differentiate between the different families of carnivore mammals. There are the canidae (dogs), felidae (cats), ursidae (bears), mustelidae (weasels, otters) and five others that live on land.

In comparison, Freilich said, most people can tell insects apart by their order: beetles, grasshoppers, dragonflies, butterflies. But after that, things get fuzzy.

According to Freilich, there are about 20 families of bees alone, each just as complex and different as the mammalian carnivore families — and even the experts have trouble keeping them straight, since many of the distinctions are only visible under the microscope: the vein patterns on wings, the genitalia, the mouth parts (short tongue vs. long tongue), the placement and appearance of tiny body hairs.

Bees are most closely related to wasps, but they’re entirely different insects, Freilich said. “For one thing, they’re vegetarian!” he said. “That’s a radical thing in the wasp world, where they’re almost all predators.”

Honeybees, which Freilich discussed only briefly, aren’t native to North America. Brought over from Europe, they differ in many ways from native bees: They live in large colonies of 30,000 to 60,000, store food and stay active in the winter months — which is attractive to human agriculture.

“None of the native bees do this,” Freilich said. Colony numbers are drastically smaller: 10, 20 or 40 bees make up a colony.

Most native bees are small, don’t sting and generally go about their business pollinating plants without interacting with humans. There are 4,000 species native to North America, and several hundred live in the North Coast area. In many species, the male worker bees die each season and only the queen overwinters. Some native bees are miners and nest in the ground, like bumblebees. Some are carpenters and nest in wood, like mason bees. There are even cuckoo bees that lay eggs in other bee species’ nests.

Freilich ended his talk with awesome black and white 3D images of bees, close-up under the microscope. Wearing their classic red-and-blue-lensed 3D glasses, audience members appreciatively oohed and ahhed.

“It’s not in the cards to learn all these bees. It’s not going to happen,” Freilich said.

The point of his talk wasn’t to turn audience members into Ph.D. students overnight — rather, the point was to simply expand awareness of the vast amount of bugs on the planet.

“Bees are only the intro to this world right under your nose, right in front of you,” he said. “You can have the same talk about mayflies or butterflies.

“The whole world is out there, but it may be below your radar. These insects make the living fabric that supports our lives — the ecosystem.”

Hosted by Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in partnership with the North Coast Watershed Association at the Fort Georg Brewery, Nature Matters is a monthly winter lecture series that examines the intersection of nature and culture. May’s talk will be the final one of this season.

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